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Marketing as Backbeat at Indie Music Festival

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AUSTIN, Tex. — How much branding is too much?

That question was pondered and debated by fans, musicians and corporate sponsors alike at the annual South by Southwest music festival here, where logo- filled banners line the streets downtown, and a flier stapled to a telephone pole might be for an indie-rock showcase in a parking lot, a marketing experiment for a blue-chip soft drink company or both.

South by Southwest, which ended its 23rd installment on Sunday, is celebrated around the world as one of the great institutions of independent music, drawing record labels, bloggers, booking agents, filmmakers, radio programmers and anyone else in search of the next cool thing. As it has grown, so has its attraction to corporate America as a rare nexus of tastemakers, leading to saturation promotional tactics that strike many festivalgoers as excessive.

“I’m wary when I end up at events like ‘Smokin’ Music,’ ” said Kenneth Tan, a vacationing bookstore employee from New York, “where they offer me free packs of cigarettes and a pass to get into after-show parties for my phone number and e-mail so they can send me advertisements for future American Spirit promotions.”

Sponsors do more than just hand out samples and collect e-mail addresses. They provide the shadow financing that pays for much of what happens at South by Southwest, from the rent for off-site party spaces to artists’ lodging and travel expenses. For many bands the only substantial performance fee of the week might come from a sponsored party.

Marketers, promoters and artist managers say that a modest branded party at South by Southwest costs $10,000 or so, but that major events with top talent can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In return that talent is often publicly grateful for the sponsor’s largess. Kanye West made sure to give a shout-out to Levi’s in a performance at its Levi’s/Fader Fort party space on Saturday night.

Although the economy has forced many companies to trim their budgets, sponsorship and advertising were ubiquitous in downtown Austin. Giant balloons shaped like energy-drink cans bobbed in the wind on East Sixth Street, and nonmusic companies like PepsiCo, BlackBerry and National Public Radio have established a greater presence, as music magazines and record labels have scaled back.

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